Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Recent Archaeological Discoveries at Hazor

Answering Longstanding Questions in Biblical Archaeology and Asking New Ones

By Dr. Jennie R. Ebeling
Lady Davis Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
   
    Rising dramatically beyond a bend in the road linking the Sea of Galilee with Israel’s northern border, Tel Hazor stands as prominently on the landscape today as when the Canaanite city founded on the site was at the height of its prosperity and international influence some

View of the main entrance to the Late Bronze Age palace

3500 years ago. Our knowledge of the site’s history comes from intensive archaeological excavations, textual sources dating to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and important passages in the Hebrew Bible.

    Hazor was the largest city in the southern Levant for much of the 2nd millennium BCE and closely associated with the large and powerful Bronze Age city-states in Syria. Texts unearthed at Mari, in Syria, Tel el-Amarna, Egypt, and in Hazor itself describe the Canaanite city’s role in international trade and diplomacy and suggest Hazor’s autonomy from Egypt during the New Kingdom period when most of Canaan was under Egyptian control. The Late Bronze Age city was destroyed sometime in the 13th century BCE, perhaps during the Israelite incursions into Canaan described in the Book of Joshua, which describes Hazor as the “head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10). After several centuries of limited occupation, Hazor was rebuilt in the 10th century BCE, probably as part of King Solomon’s building activities described in 1 Kings 9:15. The Israelite city prospered briefly before it was destroyed in 732 BCE by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15:29). This brief sketch of Hazor’s history during the Bronze and Iron Ages may now be filled in with the results of the current Hebrew University excavation project, which will enter its 13th season in the summer of 2002.

    Hazor was first excavated for four seasons in the 1950s and again in 1968-1969 by the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the direction of one of the fathers of Israeli archaeology, Yigael Yadin. Yadin’s team opened excavation areas in both the 30-acre Upper City – the tel proper – and the 170-acre Lower City and identified an occupation sequence beginning in Early Bronze II (early 3rd century BCE) on the tel and Middle Bronze IIB (ca. 1800 BCE) in the Lower City. Although these excavations were quite successful in revealing the chronology, character, and physical extent of the site, they also raised a number of questions that could not be resolved without further excavation. Yadin planned to return Hazor until his untimely death in 1984.

    Excavations in honor of Yigael Yadin were initiated in 1990 under the direction of Amnon Ben-Tor as a joint project of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Complutense University in Madrid, Spain. The past twelve seasons of excavation, confined to two large areas on the tel itself, have corroborated many of Yadin’s conclusions and greatly increased our understanding of the series of Canaanite and Israelite settlements at Hazor.

    The renewed excavation project has focused much attention on the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200 BCE) remains at Hazor, especially a Canaanite palace discovered in Area A at the center of the tel. Yadin had uncovered a corner of this massive structure during his excavations and dated it to the Middle Bronze Age; the current excavations have shown, however, that it should be dated to the Late Bronze Age. The palace exterior features decorative, Syrian-style basalt orthostats forming a zigzag-shaped outer wall, a paved outdoor courtyard with a cultic platform in its center, a raised entrance porch with the remains of two huge column bases, and two guard rooms flanking the entrance. The palace core, which is dominated by a central throne room, was constructed of mudbrick walls faced with basalt orthostats and a floor built of planks of costly cedar of Lebanon. Among the many artifacts recovered from the palace are fragments of ivory plaques and boxes, cylinder seals and beads, figurines, two bronze statues of kings or deities, and the largest Bronze Age anthropomorphic statue ever found in Israel, made of basalt and standing over three feet tall.   

    Three cuneiform tablets were also found in the palace core, which led the excavators to believe that an archive was close at hand. Indeed, in a palace built on almost the exact same plan at Alalakh, in Syria an archive room with the remains of hundreds of cuneiform documents was uncovered, and the location of this room roughly corresponds

Middle Bronze Age tablet sent to a Canaanite king of Hazor

to the spot in the Hazor palace where the three tablets were found. Unfortunately, no other direct evidence for a royal archive has come to light since these documents were excavated during the 1996 season, although a few other tablets have been found in random locations around the site. Some of the tablets date to the Middle Bronze Age and some to the Late Bronze Age, suggesting that two archives might still be buried somewhere on the tel. Most of these documents are concerned with economic and legal matters, while others consist of fragments of a bilingual (Akkadian and Sumerian) dictionary and a mathematical table. These latter texts suggest that a scribal school functioned at Hazor.
 
    Excavations in the second area opened on the tel, Area M, also yielded important Late Bronze Age remains. Area M is located on the tel’s northern side in a spot where the tel gently slopes down to meet the Lower City; excavators believed that this area must contain the main

Late Bronze Age cultic platform in Area M

passage between the Lower City and the tel during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. In addition to the remains of staircases, drainage installations, and fragments of massive walls, archaeologists uncovered a cultic platform just inside a gateway with two small towers. The platform is made of a single dressed basalt block measuring about 5 x 5 feet and weighing over a ton, with four small symmetrical depressions on its surface probably used to support a throne or statue. This slab sat on a base of carefully cut orthostat blocks in the middle of an orthostat pavement and was set in front of a niche cut into a mudbrick wall. Ceramic and other artifacts found in the vicinity of the platform suggest that it may have been a gate shrine where those passing between the Lower City and the Upper City paid respects, taxes, or tribute to Hazor’s king or one of its patron deities.

    The Late Bronze Age city was destroyed sometime during the 13th century BCE in a fire so intense that it cracked the basalt architectural elements of the palace, the gate shrine, and other structures and left a layer of ash up to three feet deep in places. Yadin attributed this destruction layer to the Israelite campaigns led by Joshua and dated it to 1230 BCE. Although his date for the final destruction of Canaanite Hazor is a bit too late, it now looks as though Yadin may have been correct in attributing the destruction to invading Israelites. Noting the intentional mutilation and destruction of a number of statues found at Hazor depicting Canaanite and Egyptian rulers and deities, Ben-Tor discounts both the Canaanites and the Egyptians as the destroyers of Late Bronze Age Hazor. The lack of evidence for the Sea Peoples at Hazor and the site’s location so far inland also make these invading groups from the Aegean world unlikely candidates. Invading Israelites, along with disenfranchised elements in Canaan, seem to have been responsible for the devastation of Late Bronze Age Hazor, although this issue is far from resolved and likely to continue as a source of debate.   

    If the Israelites did indeed destroy Canaanite Hazor, they did not establish a permanent settlement at the site for some time. The Iron Age I (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) occupation of Hazor left barely a trace, but for a number of refuse pits containing ashes, broken ceramic vessels and other artifacts dug directly into the last Canaanite level, and a small shrine. These remains seem to indicate that a semi-nomadic population inhabited the site either immediately after the Late Bronze

Bronze figurine of a Canaanite nobleman

Age destruction or immediately before the 10th-century reestablishment of the site; the pottery and other artifacts do not allow for a more secure dating of this ephemeral occupation. These semi-nomadic people may have been members of the early Israelite tribes described in the Books of Joshua and Judges in the Hebrew Bible, although the relationship between the destroyers of the Late Bronze Age city and the Iron Age I inhabitants of Hazor is still not completely understood.

    One of the most controversial issues in biblical archaeology in recent years concerns the 10th century BCE and the archaeological evidence for the Israelite monarchy as described in the Hebrew Bible. Yadin first suggested that the nearly-identical six-chambered gates and casemate walls unearthed at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer were evidence for King Solomon’s building activities in the 10th century BCE, as described in 1 Kings 9:15. Yadin’s conclusions have been challenged in recent years by biblical scholars (especially the biblical “revisionists”) who cast doubt on the historicity of David and Solomon and a few archaeologists who have dated these fortifications down to the 9th century BCE. The recent excavations at Hazor have shown definitively, however, that the six-chambered gate and casemate wall were built in the mid-10th century BCE, along with a large public building connected to the earliest phase of the casemate wall by a paved street. The ceramic assemblages found on the floors of this four-phased public building corroborate a 10th-century date for these constructions. This massive, well-planned building activity coincides with the accepted date for King Solomon’s reign, making this ruler of Israel’s United Monarchy the most likely candidate for the reestablishment of Hazor in Iron Age II (ca. 1000-732 BCE).

    The Israelite city reached its height of prosperity during the 9th century BCE, perhaps during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. The population of Hazor more than doubled in size, and a number of large public buildings were constructed at the site along with an impressive water system. The city fell into decline in the 8th century under the threat of the Assyrian kings and Israel’s other enemies, and Israelite Hazor was finally destroyed in 732 BCE by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15: 29-30). Although most of the population of Hazor was probably deported to Assyria, some Hazorites remained and continued to live both within the city limits and outside the ruined city wall. Hazor was never occupied on a large scale after the Assyrian conquest; the subsequent Assyrian, Persian, and Hellenistic settlement of the site was limited mainly to defensive structures.

    As one of the largest and most important Bronze and Iron Age sites in the region, Hazor has the potential to answer a number of longstanding questions in archaeology and biblical studies and ask new ones. Analysis and publication of the results of the current excavation project will contribute a great deal to our understanding of Hazor’s history and the larger history of the southern Levant during this important period.

Bronze figurine of a Canaanite 'smiting' god

Dr. Jennie R. Ebeling is currently a Lady Davis Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

For Further Reading:
    A useful summary of the results of Yigael Yadin’s excavations at Hazor can be found in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Jerusalem, 1993). A survey of the results of the renewed excavations can be found in Biblical Archaeology Review vols. 25/2-3 (1999) and on Hazor’s website (address given below). Along with the author’s own knowledge of the results of the current excavations, these published sources provided much useful information for this article.

Call for Volunteers:
    The 13th season of the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin is planned for the summer of 2002. The dig season will run from June 25 through August 6, and volunteers are invited to participate for either 3 or 6 weeks. More information and an application for prospective volunteers can be found at: http://unixware.mscc.huji.ac.il/~hatsor/hazor.html

    Photos are courtesy of Amnon Ben-Tor, Director of the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael
Yadin.